Myra Colby Bradwell: Illinois’ first woman lawyer

Myra Colby Bradwell, the state's first woman lawyer, began the rich history of the women's legal profession in Illinois. Bradwell was an advocate for women's rights, particularly in the legal profession, leaving a lasting impression on the women's legal profession.

Myra Colby was born into an active abolitionist family in Manchester, Vermont on February 12, 1831. In 1843, her family settled in the township of Schaumburg, Illinois. After studying in Kenosha, Wisconsin and then at the ladies' seminary in Elgin, Illinois, Myra Colby became a schoolteacher in 1851.

In 1852, Myra Colby married James Bolesworth Bradwell of Palatine, Illinois. Her husband had studied law and began practicing law in Chicago while still a student. After working at his legal office, Bradwell's interest in becoming a licensed attorney developed.

Her study of the law was briefly postponed during the Civil War. Bradwell served as an active relief worker, assisting the Union army and their families through her involvement at the Chicago branch of the Sanitary Commission.

After the war ended, Bradwell continued her legal studies. In 1868, she established Chicago's only weekly newspaper after obtaining the necessary permit to allow a woman to open a business in Illinois. Bradwell became the business and editorial manager of the Chicago Legal News. The newspaper quickly gained significant notoriety. The Chicago Legal News reported court decisions, promoted reforms to the legal profession, and supported women's rights. The column entitled "Law Relating to Women" was specifically designed to promote the social and legal status of women. Bradwell used humor, which she believed was an effective tool in the courtroom, throughout her blunt writing style to advocate reforms.

In 1869, after passing the Illinois Bar Exam with honors, Bradwell applied to the Illinois Supreme Court for admission to the bar. The court denied her license without rendering a formal opinion. The letter from the clerk of the court indicated her application was denied because she was a married woman.

Bradwell re-petitioned the court, arguing that recently enacted laws had increased a married woman's legal abilities. Before the court rendered an opinion, she filed an additional brief based on two federal Constitutional claims, violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause and violation of the Fourth Article of the Constitution's Privileges and Immunities Clause.

The Illinois Supreme Court, in a formal opinion, denied Bradwell's application again. The rationale for this decision was no longer based on Bradwell's status as a married woman, but merely on Bradwell's status as a woman.

Bradwell brought her appeal of the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, where she filed a writ of error. Three years later, on April 15, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the denial of Bradwell's license, stating that the right to practice law was not covered by the Fourteenth Amendment.

During the three years her case was pending in the U.S. Supreme Court, Bradwell and her husband assisted Alta Hulett, who had also been denied admittance to the Illinois bar, in drafting legislation allowing women to be admitted to the Illinois bar. Once this legislation became Illinois law on March 22, 1872, Bradwell refused to reapply to the bar, believing that the court should re-examine this matter on its own initiative.

Around this time, Bradwell and her husband suffered tragic losses during the Chicago fire of 1871, losing their home, law library, and the Chicago Legal News. Despite these losses, Bradwell insisted on the continued publication of the newspaper, and within the next few weeks, publication of the Chicago Legal News had resumed.

Bradwell did not allow the repeated denials of a law license prohibit her legal career. She advanced her legal career through the Chicago Legal News. The newspaper covered legal news across the nation. Bradwell wrote discussions and editorials regarding opinions of lawyers, the courts, and new legislation. For 25 years, she continued to promote legal reforms and discuss the role of women in the legal profession. She proposed that men had a duty to recognize the capabilities of women in society.

In addition to the Chicago Legal News, Bradwell was an advocate for women through other avenues. She became the corresponding secretary to the newly established Illinois Woman Suffrage Association (IWSA). Bradwell and her husband served on the IWSA's legislative committee, where they lobbied for legislation promoting women's suffrage. She extensively promoted women's representation in the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition and was appointed to the Board of Lady Managers in 1890 for the upcoming Exposition to be held in Chicago.

Meanwhile, in response to her husband's initiatives, the Illinois Supreme Court finally reviewed Bradwell's original motion to be admitted to the bar. The Illinois Supreme Court admitted Bradwell to the bar in 1890 after review of her original motion. She was then admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1892.

After battling cancer for three years, Bradwell died on February 14, 1894. Although she only officially became a lawyer in 1890, Bradwell dedicated her life to the promotion of the women's legal profession and other women's rights. She had established an impressive legal career throughout her life, which was formally recognized by her admittance to the bar in 1890.

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February 2004Volume 9Number 3PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)